On September 29, 1998—15 years ago, yesterday—two new rap albums hit the CD racks of Blockbuster Music, Coconuts, and Tower Records locations across the country.
It was the third release for both acts. One of the artists was Jay Z, and it was his true star-making moment, after Reasonable Doubt and Vol. 1 failed to propel him to the upper echelon. The other was OutKast, whose new album simultaneously refined and magnified the style of their pioneering earlier work. The success of each of these albums—Jay Z's Vol. 2...Hard Knock Life and OutKast's Aquemini, respectively—was a signal of the transition into what I believe will come to be seen as hip-hop's true golden age: the moment of its mass-market success, from the late 1990s into the early 2000s.
I was a sophomore in high school when both of these albums dropped, although I didn't buy either one on release day. I was in a contrarian phase, purchasing to a lot of jazz and some underground hip-hop—stuff that felt like real Art. (I would buy Black Star's self-titled album shortly after, and narrowly passed on buying The Love Movement after a friend panned it.) Like a lot of 15-year-olds, when I copped a record, it was supposed to say something about who I was, and I wasn't someone who copped many commercial rap albums. I definitely listened to (and enjoyed, and downloaded) the music from those artists. I was much more likely to lay out money on something like The Roots' Things Fall Apart, which came in early 1999, and cultivated a distinctly jazzy aesthetic at odds with the technoid production of the time. But I wasn't someone who could (afford to) invest in music that I was already hearing everywhere.
And in this era, downloading an mp3 relied on my mom's new telephone (we finally got a touch-button phone, and I am not kidding, in the late 1990s) and our 33.6k modem connection.
And of course, Jay Z was certainly everywhere. The sureshot "Hard Knock Life" had not yet been pushed as a single when the album dropped, but the Irv Gotti-produced "Can I Get A…." dominated radio and MTV, its video an advertisement for Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker's Rush Hour, the incoming career of Ja Rule, and most significantly, Jay's unflappable on-screen demeanor. A Rolling Stone profile of the Hard Knock Life tour the following year would describe how, compared to the manic stage presence of peers like Redman, Jay could drive the audience into hysterics purely through his statuesque on-stage presence.*
But although popular hip-hop wasn't the stuff I paid for, the advent of mp3s (even pre-Napster) meant that I could better keep up with the songs on the radio that caught my ear. (It was definitely a step up from memorizing verses while monopolizing the listening booths at Blockbuster Music.) And in this era, downloading an mp3 relied on my mom's new telephone (we finally got a touch-button phone, and I am not kidding, in the late 1990s) and our 33.6k modem connection. Downloads of a three-minute pop song would take upwards of 35 minutes, particularly if I was trying to "surf the web" at the same time. The "Can I Get A…" mp3 was about 24 minutes deep when my mom picked up the phone to make a call, abruptly killing the connection and aborting my download. To this day, I know Jay Z and Amil's verses, but only the opening lines of Ja Rule's: "It ain't even a question how my dough flows, I'm good to these bad hoes—"
With songs like "Can I Get A…," "Money, Cash, Hoes," and "Hard Knock Life," Jay became one of hip-hop's biggest stars, although he was treated—by the mainstream critics and true school heads alike—as a symptom of everything wrong with hip-hop's shift towards the center of the music business. A year earlier, Biggie, Puffy, and Ma$e had initiated New York hip-hop's turn toward the pop charts with an unprecedented run of No. 1 singles. From the Hit Men to the Trackmasters, the production style of '96-'97 was smoothed out, the grungy beats of early '90s New York given a slick sheen, one that upset hip-hop heads, but transformed the genre into the country's preferred pop music for the foreseeable future. When DMX arrived at the beginning of 1998 and brought a grimey, underground feel to the charts, it wasn't a turn backwards. His music, like Puffy's before it, felt so impactful because of how dynamic it was, relative to the cassette tape-warped flatline beats of Real Hip-Hop (™) that came before.
Record labels were recognizing the power of hip-hop's appeal across the country. If they slept, they came to regret it.
Record labels were recognizing the power of hip-hop's appeal across the country. If they slept, they came to regret it. Master P transformed a $10,000 life insurance check into a record label powerhouse. His 1996 deal with Priority assured that he would retain ownership over all of his recordings, while Priority would take only 15% of the profits. P went on to sell 75 million records, the bulk of them in 1998. His aesthetic was ruthlessly pop, repurposing proven material to his own ends and building on established regional stars to create an empire. 1998 also marked Cash Money's landmark distribution deal with Universal, which again gave the founders of an independent label complete ownership of their own masters. Juvenile's 400 Degreez, released that year, went on to sell 4 million copies alone, minting another star.
Ten years earlier, 1988 was a breakthrough year for the genre, as New York flexed its full range of artists and personalities, and other regions began to throw down stakes, making hip-hop a national genre. A decade later, artists across the nation were reaching their full commercial potential. This was widely seen as a negative thing; artists, after all, were too busy chasing profit to worry about their art. But what "chasing money" meant when album sales were the primary source of income for rap artists (as opposed to the corporate sponsorships and club appearances of today) was making a product that lots of people wanted to buy.
For those of us sitting around watching at home, the mechanics behind it were mysterious. All we knew was that we could now see Juvenile's Magnolia projects in our living rooms, a world we'd never seen, now visible for the first time. The sounds had a visual context. For many hip-hop heads, popular hip-hop seemed to arrive fully formed as a commercial product, targeting "mainstream" audiences with a dumbed-down version of the hip-hop they already knew. But it wasn't a reduced or diluted form. Quite the opposite. To me, it felt magnified, larger than life, like the fisheye lens Hype Williams used to give the era its distinct visual presence.
With an increasing audience share came an increase in geographic diversity of hip-hop. As the audience expanded, so did the possibilities. Each major rapper had a distinctive style, from Ma$e's laconic insouciance to Mystikal's spasming funk energy, Juvenile's unexpected against-the-beat flow, DMX's disregard for traditional rhythmic patterns. The genre's increasing diversity meant a growing sonic diversity as well. No longer were breakbeats and funk samples a cultural limitation. Instead, the entire world of music became a potential backdrop for the country's most charismatic MCs. From Miami bass to New Orleans bounce to Memphis's underground club sound, the sonic template of popular rap was diversified.
Vol. 2's biggest single, "Hard Knock Life," epitomized this new sense of sonic possibility in hip-hop: of all things to sample, even showtunes were an option. Nothing was off the table.
For his part, Jay Z's Vol. 2 was a tribute to the rapidly shifting sounds (and geography) of popular hip-hop. Like Master P, with unprecedented success, his blatant trendchasing became a confident understanding of the tenor of his time. Irv Gotti's "Can I Get A…" beat was southern bounce, while "Nigga What, Nigga Who (Originator 99)" utilized the stuttering rhythms of a new R&B producer from Virginia Beach named Timbaland. "Money, Cash, Hoes" was a study in contrast, Jay's steely reserve set against DMX's cathartic id, soundtracked by thunderous, apocalyptic Triton production courtesy Swizz Beats, the only popular New York producer who seemed willing to toss his sampler and compete with keyboard beatmakers like Mannie Fresh. The only tribute to old New York was the intro, a DJ Premier beat, over which Jay Z didn't even rap (He gave the song to Memphis Bleek). Vol. 2's biggest single, "Hard Knock Life," epitomized this new sense of sonic possibility in hip-hop: of all things to sample, even showtunes were an option. Nothing was off the table.
When you're living in a golden era, you usually aren't even aware of it. It feels like the natural state of things. Of course hip-hop samples whatever it wants. Of course DMX can yell in (heavily censored) prose on MTV one minute, only to be followed by Eminem's precision provocations the next. The Lox should absolutely rap about their need for a ride or die bitch over a sunny, summery strummed guitar sample, and pizzicato strings should accompany dancefloor commands to back up that azz. It was just the way things were.
OutKast's Aquemini wasn't the full realization of the group's mainstream appeal, as Vol. 2 had been for Jay Z. OutKast were not yet "everywhere." That would come two years later with Stankonia. What can be said about this record that hasn't been said hundreds of times? It is a masterpiece, obviously. One that held the personalities of its two members in a perfect balance. The album has a strong sense of place; it creates a world, one that never feels completely examined. No matter how many times you listen, there is always more terrain to parse, places to explore. It is a record packed with latent tensions, from the yin-yang pull of its chief players, to the seeming contradiction of its futurism/earthiness mythology, to the low-key sonic diversity. It was an experimentalism that never calls that much attention to its unprecedented nature. It resisted pigeonholding, and in so doing, seemed unknowable. It took place in a living, breathing universe, and exemplified the real range that could come from its genre's increasing openness. Aquemini also suggested what could be lost in the near future of indiscriminate, extroverted populism.
Aquemini found the group successfully making their first strides in the direction of this new, omnivorous pop hip-hop world, where music's entire history was raw material fit for repurposing. Beats weren't just beats. Lead single "Rosa Parks" was dynamic, catchy, and, with hip-hop's first harmonica solo, unapologetically "country." It had an immediacy, in contrast to the stoned backwoods breakbeat feel of the group's earlier work. The group's topical range was as strong as it had been on ATLiens, but in keeping with the new era, their musical range had increased dramatically. Better than Jay's coldly calculated star-making moment, Aquemini was the sound of a group recognizing how musical history was now raw material for creating a new present.
Aquemini was the sound of a group recognizing how musical history was now raw material for creating a new present.
But the sonic expansiveness and pop appeal of later OutKast was the seed of the group's destruction, right at the pinpoint moment of their biggest crossover. Much has been written about how their two personalities, so in balance on Aquemini, split with the increasing pressures of fame and their own maturation. For many fans, though—particularly those who enjoyed their '90s work most of all—Stankonia already felt like certain pieces had fallen from the frame. What had been the accidental experimentalism of a group focused on narrative innovation became a group increasingly aware of their reputation as musical innovators. As the floodlights of fame splashed across the group's increasingly popular music—"Ms. Jackson" spent a week atop the charts in February, 2001—it felt like their music, in parallel, contained fewer darkened, unexplored areas. It became entirely knoweable, larger than life, all nuance blanked out by the glare.
This was the trade-off. A lot of hip-hop fans—subterranean, underground heads by nature—were put off by the increasing attention of the spotlight. And certainly, there were negative aspects to such unprecedented success. Exploitative ones, even. But now that hip-hop is in a different place again, it's easier to see what has been lost. The genre is healthy, but more fractured than ever before. The hidden nuances of the genre are now hiding in plain sight, online, easy to find by word of mouth but difficult to stumble across as they become dwarfed by the noise. It no longer feels as if the genre is simply a part of the air the way it once was, at least, in a national sense. We have to seek out interesting hip-hop, and many talented artists never receive the investment or attention their talent deserves. But maybe once things change again, we'll recognize the faucet of free music unleashed in the late '00s as its own golden era.
*All memories of publications are memories, because most publications have not put their back catalogs onto the internet, which means they may as well not exist.